Posted by jdg | Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On the drive home from preschool: the cue from the Old Spice whistle, the smell of Brylcream in the air. I look down and my hoodie is a thin cardigan and in a 1950s sitcom dad voice I say, "So, what did you do in school today, kiddo?"

Then, the stock 1950s sitcom kid answer: "Nothing."

Over lunch, unprompted, she'll open up. I'll listen, hoping to pluck a piece of juicy playground gossip from the rambling narrative: who shoved who, who wouldn't share, who got in trouble with the teacher. All I get is some convoluted tale about kids pretending to be monkeys or some shit. Already, I fear she's keeping secrets.

I've read here and there that today's preschools are presided over by cliques of evil, pint-sized mean girls. They ostracize; they torment; they exclude. I'm always on the lookout for these reported "mean girls" whenever we go to a playground or a birthday party or anywhere else that random kids get tossed together to practice their ad hoc social skills. I don't want to tell them off or steer my child away, I just want to find one of these mythical creatures and maybe snap a picture, because, frankly, like the Chupacabra or Mothman, I don't believe such a thing as a purely mean preschooler really exists.

That's not to say I haven't seen mean behavior. I've seen plenty of it, some of it directed at my daughter and some of it from her. But I guess I just don't think there's anything all that crazy about a kid being mean. It's as natural as breathing. And I certainly wouldn't try to paint any of those kids with a broad brush because of one act of cruelty. This isn't some new trend or sign of our culture's moral degradation. Kids were cruel to each other in Zhou Dynasty China. Indigenous Bolivian preschoolers used to ostracize each other in the 12th century. And a few hundred years from now some five-year old isn't going to invite some other five-year old to her birthday party because she's not the right type of clone. Kids are awesome but they can also be mean. Is it really all that surprising?

Sure, we can lecture them and train them to be mean to each other when our backs are turned. And our own children eventually learn to hide from us the hurt they've been dealt. Then they themselves will pick on someone else in due time. Lord knows I spent my own childhood getting the shit beat out of me and being made fun of and then turning around and doing the same to others. Isn't that what childhood really is? Any kid who emerges from a childhood any different will find the real world quite a shock.

There's that smell of Brylcream again; maybe this is a little too "Boy Named Sue," but I generally make my daughter deal with the hurtful behavior of other kids on her own. I wouldn't be doing her any favors by getting all self-righteous about other kids doing what it is kids do. When she comes tattling to me I just shrug. I might remind her that the feeling of being hurt is why we do our best to not to hurt others. I'm far less concerned about her fragility than I am her being a perpetrator of hurt. I can only hope to teach her that hurting others has its consequences.

There will come a time when this will all be more serious, and I'm going to sit the kids down and drop some knowledge. I'll give them a few pearls I've learned over the years like, "Don't go into a tattoo parlor unless you already know exactly what you want"; and, "Never get your hair cut in China." Just like Skull & Bones sitting a new class of Bonesmen and divulging their ancient secrets---such as Jesus's real dad being that Hittite snake charmer Mary met at her bachelorette party and all the details of maintaining the New World Order---I will also divulge one important ancient secret to my kids: That feeling you get when someone teases you is called insecurity, and it is directly caused by the insecurity of the one trying to hurt you. Like water, insecurity seeks itself to find the quickest path downhill. You can try to dam it up or divert it but it is part of life. Just try not to drown in it, or drown any others.

Of course, they probably won't listen to any of that bullshit. They'll just have to figure it out for themselves.